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The poems of Philip Larkin

Often wry and dry, mocking and wistful in turns, sometimes even bitter and foul-mouthed, Philip Larkin is no Wordsworth, William Blake or Keats. He doesn’t go into raptures about love or nature or into spiritual ecstasy. He isn’t a poet who offers solace or comfort. And yet, as James Booth says in his book, Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love:

Larkin is, by common consent, the best-loved British poet of the last (20th) century. Phrases and lines from his poems are more frequently quoted than those of any other poet of his time: “What are days for?”; “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three”; “What will survive of us is love”; “Never such innocence again”.

Larkin is certainly eminently quotable. As Martin Amis says in the introduction to his selection of poems by Larkin: “Larkin, often, is more than memorable. He is instantly unforgettable.”


Amis writes:


Larkin’s originality is palpable. Many poets make us smile; how many make us laugh – or, in that curious phrase, “laugh out loud” (as if there’s any other way of doing it)? Who else uses an essentially conversational idiom to achieve such a variety of emotional effects? Who takes us, and takes us so often, from sunlit levity to mellifluous gloom? And let it be emphasised that Larkin is never “depressing”. Achieved art is quite incapable of lowering the spirits. If this were not so, each performance of King Lear would end in a Jonestown.


I think Toads was the first poem by Larkin I came across in some anthology or the other in my final years at school or early in college. I was instantly impressed by its wit and wordplay though, reading it now, it seems a bit cynical, too.

Toads

Why should I let the toad work
Squat on my life?
Can’t I use my wit as a pitchfork
And drive the brute off?

Six days of the week it soils
With its sickening poison —
Just for paying a few bills!
That’s out of proportion.

Lots of folks live on their wits:
Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts —
They don’t end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines —
They seem to like it.

Their nippers have got bare feet,
Their unspeakable wives
Are skinny as whippets —and yet
No one actually starves.

Ah, were I courageous enough
To shout Stuff your pension!
But I know, all too well, that’s the stuff
That dreams are made on:

For something sufficiently toad-like
Squats in me, too:
Its hunkers are heavy as hard luck,
And cold as snow,

And will never allow me to blarney
My way to getting
The fame and the girl and the money
All at one sitting.

I don’t say, one bodies the other
One’s spiritual truth;
But I do say it’s hard to lose either,
When you have both.

Larkin’s most famous, most quoted, poem undoubtedly is Annus Mirabilis.

Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Widely quoted too is his darkest poem, This Be the Verse, which is savage in its bitterness.

This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Bitter though it is, it is a powerful poem, just as Annus Mirabilis instantly clicks with a certain generation of readers. Larkin is instantly accessible. He uses simple words, a conversational tone, to powerful effect. His words and images stay with the readers.


I am fond of Larkin’s Homage to a Government, his elegiac poem about a country whose military power is declining.

Homage To A Government

Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.

It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.

Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.

There is a wistfulness in the A Homage To A Government — a wistfulness also found in MCMXIV, Larkin’s poem about World War I, which ends with the following lines:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word — the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Wistful, too, is Sad Steps, a poem about physical decay and mortality with haunting nocturnal imagery focusing on a brilliant moon.

Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There’s something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate –
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there,
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Mortality is a theme Larkin returns to over and again in poems such as Next, Please, The Old Fools, and An Arundel Tomb.

Next, Please

Always too eager for the future, we
Pick up bad habits of expectancy.
Something is always approaching; every day
Till then we say,

Watching from a bluff the tiny, clear,
Sparkling armada of promises draw near.
How slow they are! And how much the they waste,
Refusing to make haste!

Yet still they leave us holding wretched stalks
Of disappointment, for, though nothing balks
Each big approach, leaning with brasswork printed,
Each rope distinct.

Flagged, and the figurehead with golden tits
Arching our way, it never anchors; it’s
No sooner present than it turns to past.
Right to the last

We think each one will heave to and unload
All good into our lives, all we are owed
For waiting so devoutly and so long.
But we are wrong:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

An Arundel Tomb — a poem inspired by the image cast in stone of a mediaeval earl and his countess lying, holding hands, in death — ends with the memorable line: “What will survive of us is love.”

The Old Fools is memorable, too, for its haunting description of old age:

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.
This is why they give

An air of baffled absence, trying to be there
Yet being here.

Larkin resonates, but he cannot soothe or comfort readers. He could be cynical. A librarian who never married but had affairs with several women including a long relationship with Monica Jones, a university lecturer in English, Larkin didn’t paint a romantic picture of marriage in Self’s the Man.

Self’s The Man

Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,

And the money he gets for wasting his life on work
She takes as her perk
To pay for the kiddies’ clobber and the drier
And the electric fire,

And when he finishes supper
Planning to have a read at the evening paper
It’s Put a screw in this wall —
He has no time at all,

With the nippers to wheel round the houses
And the hall to paint in his old trousers
And that letter to her mother
Saying Won’t you come for the summer.

To compare his life and mine
Makes me feel a swine:
Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.

But wait, not so fast:
Is there such a contrast?
He was out for his own ends
Not just pleasing his friends;

And if it was such a mistake
He still did it for his own sake,
Playing his own game,
So he and I are the same,

Only I’m a better hand
At knowing what I can stand
Without them sending a van —
Or I suppose I can.

Larkin needed solitude, time to himself. It comes through in Vers de Societe.

Vers de Societe

My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You’d care to join us?
In a pig’s arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I’m afraid —

Funny how hard it is to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who’s read nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown

Straight into nothingness by being filled
With forks and faces, rather than repaid
Under a lamp, hearing the noise of wind,
And looking out to see the moon thinned
To an air-sharpened blade.
A life, and yet sternly it’s instilled

All solitude is selfish. No one now
Believes the hermit with his gown and dish
Talking to God (who’s gone too): the big wish
Is to have people nice to you, which means
Doing it back somehow.
Virtue is social. Are, then, these routines

Playing at goodness, like going to church?
Something that bores us, something we don’t do well
(Asking that ass about his fool research)
But try to feel, because, however crudely,
It shows us what should be?
Too subtle, that. Too decent, too. Oh hell,

Only the young can be alone freely,
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond that light stand failure and removes
Whispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course —

Martin Amis writes about Larkin:

He was wifeless and childless; he was a nine-to-five librarian, who lived for thirty years in a northern city that smelled of fish (Hull — the sister town of Grimsby). There were in all five lovers: the frail, bespectacled teenager, Ruth; the neurotic “poetess”, Patsy; the religious virgin, Maeve; the “loaf-haired secretary”, Betty (buoyant, matter-of-fact); and overspanning them all, the redoubtable Monica Jones. There were, after a while, no close friends: penpals, colleagues, acquaintances, but no close friends.

Amis adds: “Larkin’s self-awareness, his internal candour, was merciless. ” He then cites the first and last stanza of Larkin’s 16-line poem Money. Here’s the poem in full.

Money

Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
“Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.”

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

— In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won’t in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Amis writes: “It (the poem Money) shows, as clearly as any poem can, that Larkin siphoned all his energy, all his love, out of the life and into the work.That he succeeded in this is a tragic miracle; but it is still a miracle.”

By Abhijit

Abhijit loves reading and writing.

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